Aging in a High Tech World

Majorca, Spain
Majorca, Spain

My Dad will be 90 this June. He's mobile, sociable and, for the past six months, has been living in a retirement community near our home. His short-term memory is sputtering, and he doesn't like wearing his hearing aids, but basically, he has all his marbles except one -- his Achilles heel -- the marble that has to do with financial planning.


My Dad is an intelligent man, but that was no defense against the people who took advantage of him. He is a case study in how scammers probe for soft spots or weaknesses, and when they find one, they go in for the kill. Dad was an electrical engineer who worked on space projects and the EV-1 electric car. He transitioned into consulting work, and then got into real estate development. He and my Mom worked hard and lived well for a number of years until the last deal he tried to do, which fell through as the Great Recession took hold. My brother and I had never discussed with my parents what their retirement plans might be, and it turned out that instead of saving for retirement, they used all their resources for that last big deal. By the time they lost their house, Dad was 85 and Mom was 83.

All of this is to say that Dad had -- and has -- a vulnerability to anyone who could appeal to his heart's desire, which is to go back to building houses. This is key to what happened next.

The Main Event(s)

My Mom developed high blood pressure and dementia. She passed away in March 2013. She and Dad had been married for 60 years.

During the six months between her passing in March and September of 2013, Dad kept asking me for money. My husband and I were paying his rent, and Dad should have had almost $1,000/month left after paying his phone, utility and food bills. I couldn't figure out what was going on until Dad showed me a phone bill with a total amount due of $2,132.41, and listing some 200 phone calls to/from 'Kingston' (Jamaica) and Las Vegas. How did Dad start getting these phone calls? He thinks he may have responded to an Internet sweepstakes offer. He might have gotten a solicitation in the mail and responded to that. Maybe it started with a cold call to him, a lonely senior citizen. He sent the sweepstakes people money -- lots of it.

I want to say that these scammers are GOOD. They found Dad's weak spot -- he needed investors for the big real estate deal he wanted to do -- and they crafted a story that met his need. There were 'transfer fees' to be paid, 'delivery costs,' 'unexpected delays' and every conceivable reason for Dad to send these "investors" more money. My brother and I knew nothing about any of this at the time; it wasn't until that phone bill opened a door to a conversation with my Dad that I learned the extent of the damage.

I called the LA City Attorney's office, and their Elder Abuse attorney referred me to the FBI and the US Postal Service's mail fraud unit. Here's an excerpt from the note I wrote to the FBI agent in August 2013, with an added bit of information:

Dear Ms. D.,
Susan S. at the LA City Attorney's office suggested that I contact you about my 88-year-old father's immersion in a sweepstakes scam that has resulted in him turning over to scammers at least $6,000 during the last two months. $4,000 was Social Security money that he needs to live on, and $2,000 was from an insurance company payout after a car accident. He is currently waiting for "two guys from Las Vegas" to come to his apartment (!!!) and accompany him to his bank where "they will deposit a million dollars in (his) bank account." Two days ago I drove past a man walking on a Westside street carrying his stereo. It was my Dad. I stopped to give him a ride home; he said he was trying to find a place to sell his stereo equipment so he could pay these guys' "fees."

Dad is otherwise fit, perfectly conversational and just has this one problem. I also think the fact that these guys call him all the time makes him feel less lonely since my Mom died four months ago.

Agents from both the FBI and USPS offered to meet with my Dad at his apartment to talk with him about scams targeting seniors; I jumped at the opportunity. After a conversation with Dad, they left him some materials to read. They told me he had been receptive, had agreed that he was entangled in a scam, and that he would stop responding to the scammers and sending them money. The agents left.

I sat down with Dad and asked if he understood what the FBI and USPS folks had said about scams focused on seniors. He said 'Yes.' I asked what he thought about what the agents had to say. "It was good," he said. "I realized I'd made some mistakes." "Hallelujah!" I thought. "He gets it." Then Dad stood up and said, "I've got to go." I said "Where?" (thinking 'grocery store, where he can get his favorite chocolate-covered marshmallows'). "I can take you where you're going," I offered. He said, "two guys are going to meet me at the bank to deposit a million dollars in my bank account."

And that, my friends, is life with a senior citizen who is a smart man, but fixated on finding a way to regain control of his life as his options and capacity are slipping away.

TOMORROW, the aftermath...